International News

Border Bishop to Vice President: ‘We Need to Work Together’

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris takes part in a roundtable discussion at Paso del Norte Port of Entry in El Paso, Texas, June 25, 2021, with faith and community leaders who are assisting with the processing of migrants seeking asylum. At the right is Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso. (Photo: Catholic News Service)

WINDSOR TERRACE — On Vice President Kamala Harris’ first trip to the Southern border, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso emphasized to her the importance of seeing first-hand the border and the countries migrants are fleeing to properly address the burgeoning immigration crisis.

“You are tasked with addressing root causes,” Bishop Seitz told Harris, who was hand-picked by President Biden to lead diplomatic efforts aimed at addressing the rise in migrants. “As you do so, it is important for you to see the foreboding walls of steel that mark the southern boundary of this borderland community and to see, beyond them, the suffering and aspirations that motivate people to leave family and homeland.

“These are things that cannot be understood in the abstract, they must be experienced.”

The June 25 meeting between Harris and Bishop Seitz was part of the vice president’s brief trip to El Paso, the latest move in the Biden Administration efforts to address the root causes of a recent surge of migrants leaving their Central American homelands and seeking refuge in the U.S.

It’s the first time Harris has visited the southern border since Biden chose her to address the immigration crisis in late March. In the three months since, lawmakers and immigration activists on both sides of the aisle have criticized the vice president for not visiting the nation’s southern border as the numbers of migrants continued to rise. The White House announced Harris’ trip one day after former President Donald Trump announced he was visiting the border on June 30.

Harris took the trip alongside Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. In addition to Bishop Seitz, Harris met with Dylan Corbett, the executive director of the El Paso faith-based immigration advocacy organization Hope Border Institute, and other leaders of nonprofit organizations.

Items on the vice president’s agenda included touring a migrant processing center and a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, and a meeting with five young girls from Central America.

Bishop Seitz opened his remarks to Harris with a welcome and greeting from Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He ended his remarks by gifting Harris a rosary blessed by Pope Francis during the Mass of Oscar Romero’s canonization. Romero was a Central American archbishop and martyr.

“A reminder of the divine fire within you, calling you deeper, to put faith into action by working for a world in which we all recognize each other, every human person, as sisters and brothers,” Bishop Seitz said of the rosary gift. “And to remember that we are ready to partner with you in the work of justice for migrants and solidarity between nations.”

At a time when the areas of disagreement between the present administration and U.S. bishops have been well documented, Bishop Seitz’s remarks largely focused on the importance of solidarity in properly addressing the immigration crisis.

He told Harris of a plan for bishops and Catholic leaders in the U.S. to visit Central America to “listen deeply to sending communities.” That effort will be followed by a trip by grassroots faith leaders from Central America to the nation’s capital “on behalf of change.”

“I invite you to join us,” Bishop Seitz told Harris. “We need to work together, Madame Vice President. I invite you and your team to engage with the faith community in this process of rebuilding relations and co-creating a just shared future.”

Bishop Seitz also urged Harris to take action towards ending Title 42 and restoring the right to asylum, as well as complete immigration reform. Title 42 is a Trump administration policy instituted last year, and not rescinded by President Joe Biden, that allows U.S. authorities to expel migrants on the grounds of public health, limiting their right to seek asylum.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has expelled 647,919 people under the policy since the start of the Fiscal Year 2021 in October, according to its website. Of that total, 328,267 of those expulsions took place in March, April, and May – 107,100, 110,687, and 110,480 respectively.

On the topic of root causes, Bishop Seitz cautioned Harris that it’s important not to ignore the historical complicity of the United States in the current immigration strife.

“Our entanglement in an economy that kills, our inaction on climate change, our fueling of death-dealing violence with weapons of war and drug consumption, our obsession for power over the common good, our addiction to short results and eliminating opponents over the patient cultivation of social friendship, our indifference towards life, our racism,” he said. “Addressing root causes means addressing these things, too.”

Harris’ trip to El Paso marks the second time this month she’s traveled to address the root causes of the recent migration surge. However, she has yet to visit the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, which has felt the brunt of the uptick in migrants this year.

The vice president’s first visit to the region was to Guatemala and Mexico June 7-8.

Days prior, more than 20 Catholic bishops from the U.S., Mexico, and Central America, along with over 20 Catholic leaders involved in immigration advocacy, came together for an emergency immigration summit at the Mundelein Seminary outside of Chicago. They focused on three areas: welcoming, advocacy, and root causes.

Bishop Seitz spearheaded the meeting. Corbett, who is the regional coordinator for North America, Central America, and the Caribbean for the Holy See’s Migrants & Refugees Section was also in attendance.

A final readout and plan of action from that meeting were sent out to all U.S. bishops this week. The priority actions it outlines for addressing root causes include engaging the Biden Administration, which it appeared Friday could be the first step towards that particular goal.

Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville of Washington, the USCCB migration chair, said it was an important step for the two sides to meet in person because that’s where “they listen to each other, and they come up with conclusions and action plans.”

“We hope we might be able to continue building up this kind of dialogue because it’s extremely important not for the church itself, but for those who are going to be benefiting from this dialogue who are our newcomers and the migrants,” Bishop Dorsonville said.

Other priority actions to address root causes include a joint advocacy trip to Washington D.C. of bishops from the U.S., Mexico, and Central America; a “fact-finding and solidarity trip” to Central America by bishops and Catholic leaders, and utilizing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Justice Peace & Human Development committee as a think tank to evaluate the Biden Administration’s proposals on root causes.

Bishop Dorsonville, who led the discussion on root causes at the summit, identified violence, climate change, corruption, political instability, and a lack of education and opportunities for success as key issues.

He called these root causes “real obstacles” that “destroy” dreams, especially of young people. However, he’s hopeful because he sees the focus on root causes getting stronger and stronger.

Now, Bishop Dorsonville says it’s important to merge the dreams of the south with the resources of the north.

“If we merge these two bigger points in the life of the person we might be able to produce the dream of the northern triangle that so many millions of youngsters and children need for their lives,” the bishop said.